The familiar exotic

Exotic yet familiar: Jeff and Matt at the gate to Chinatown, San Francisco, 2003

Exotic yet familiar: Jeff and Matt at the gate to Chinatown, San Francisco, 2003

“Make the familiar exotic; the exotic familiar.”  Bharati Mukherjee

I’m pretty good at making the exotic familiar, or at least trying.  When Jeff and I travel, we tend to avoid the tourist routes and go to places where the locals are: public transportation, grocery stores, municipal libraries.  The more intriguing a city is, the more I am determined to walk through it enough times to get a feel for the neighborhoods and the pulse of daily activity.  It can be daunting at times, especially when one doesn’t know the language, but it’s also comforting to be where the people are, going about lives that are strikingly similar to our own despite the varied contexts.

I’m not quite as good at seeing the exotic in the familiar.  Yet I know it’s there, hiding in plain sight.  When Drew was in first grade, his teacher assigned the students to write to their grandmothers (and great-grandmothers, if they were lucky enough to have them) with questions about daily life when they were children.  It was one of the most memorable school experiences I know of, because the letters we received in answer to Drew’s inquiries were fascinating to the point of seeming exotic.

These were women I thought I knew well, but I learned things about them I had never known.  We also realized that their school experiences, so different from those of today’s children, were scarcely mentioned in the history texts.  I came away with the understanding of how little of our past is ever documented, and how much it comes to life when told in everyday details that historians often leave out.

The popularity of scrapbooks, journals and blogs is adding exponentially to the everyday history that is being recorded, and I’m so glad!  When I read posts from Bindu or Z or Sydney Fong, or look at the beautiful photos from Cindy Knoke, Michael Lai, or another Julia who loves to take photos, to name just a few of the many people all over the world whose work I enjoy, I feel a bit more familiar with the exotic.  And I am inspired to discover the exotic in my own familiar life, things that are unique to my particular world that I am happy to share with others.

I invite you to join in the worldwide conversation by reading, commenting, or starting your own blog or online journal to introduce other people to your corner of the world.  I think you’ll find, as I did, that the blogging community is a friendly and supportive group, where newcomers are always welcome.  It’s a wonderful antidote to the news media stories about conflict, hostility and fear. There’s a lot of good news out here in the blogosphere – welcome to our world!

Seven years ago today it was Good Friday. Because my posts for Easter weekend were themed to coincide with that holiday, I am holding them for Easter weekend this year, and using the posts of those days, April 10-12, for today, tomorrow and Sunday. So this is the post originally published on April 10, 2013, and on April 10 of this year I’ll post the March 29, 2013 post. As usual, the original post and comments will be linked below under related posts.


  1. Good morning, Julia!
    I sometimes have a similar “thing” about getting to know a new place, even if it’s a small town where I stopped during a long drive. Every inhabited place is someone’s neighborhood.
    When I fly, I like to look down and think of the people in a town, city, or rural setting. Everyone has a story; most everyone has people they love and a favorite place that they like to hang out with their people. It’s pretty amazing to think about, and in some ways, a farmer in South Dakota might be just as “exotic” as someone in a faraway distant place, since I don’t know either of them!

    • Susan, I agree totally! And I often do what you describe, imagining people’s lives. I have a thing about lighted windows at night, seeing them and imagining that somewhere inside, there is an entire world behind each and every lighted square. I wrote a poem called “Mosaic” (that won an award in a local juried competition) about this very thing. It was inspired by this poem by Donald Justice, which I read in my youth and never forgot:


      Excepting the diner
      On the outskirts
      The town of Ladora
      At 3 A.M.
      Was dark but
      For my headlights
      And up in
      One second-story room
      A single light
      Where someone
      Was sick or
      Perhaps reading
      As I drove past
      At seventy
      Not thinking
      This poem
      Is for whoever
      Had the light on
      –Donald Justice

      • hmm. Good poem. It does fire one’s imagination, and pauses only long enough to acknowledge the pause; over as quickly as the drive past. All the rest is mystery.
        Is your poem published somewhere that it can be found? 😀

        • No, only in the locally published book the awards committee printed every year with the various award winners (short stories, poems etc.) I did include it in a book of various poems (mine and other people’s), quotes and photographs I made for Mama and Daddy several years ago. Sometime I might publish some of my poems here. I’ve debated about doing it, but have never decided it would be a good thing to do.

          • That’s so sweet that you made a book for your parents! What a great idea!
            Now I’m thinking, I could make one to send my dad, in the nursing facility. Here’s not doing well with technology, to keep in touch, but a book could be nice for him.

            • I used one of many photo book services online, but I can’t immediately remember which one. I do remember that I was very pleased with how it came out. I’ve done several photo books through various companies and some are definitely better than others. You Dad would love one, I’m sure. Then someday it will be a nice keepsake for you or your children. So it’s time well spent, and once you get the hang of the program, it gets easier.

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